Even the best Christian instruction can be repugnant without empathy and love. Jesus knew this more than most. Scripture says that Christ is both our sympathetic High Priest and a Good Shepherd with compassion for sinners. (Heb. 4:15, Matt. 9:36) Therefore we can look to Him as our ultimate example of loving instruction. The good news about the Bible is that it’s not just a book where we find Christian theology; we also find Christian methodology. In other words, it’s not just the words of Jesus we should imitate; it’s also the way He spoke those words. Jesus knew what to say and how to say it. Likewise, eternally speaking, Christianity is just as much about the delivery of truth as it is about the truth itself. (Rom. 10:8-17)
In the second chapter of Revelation, Jesus Himself admonishes the church at Ephesus for their sin. But He does so in a uniquely loving way. It’s a technique that Christians everywhere would do well to learn in their mission to communicate truth to a sinful world. It’s called the “compliment sandwich.” The Lord says,
I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolatians, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. Revelation 2:2-7
Christ intentionally places his admonition and call to repentance inside two words of affirmation and encouragement. That’s called a “compliment sandwich.” Before He addressed what the Ephesians were doing wrong, he began with what they were actually doing right. He showed empathy in his correction. It was that important to Jesus to include praise on both ends. Here in this passage we witness Christ’s love simply in the way he chose to structure his message to sinners. Jesus’s sharp criticism of the Ephesians (and Americans) no doubt rattled the hearts of the godly in Ephesus. According to Christ, the Ephesian Christians had “abandoned” their first love. They’d strayed from the basic foundation of the Gospel message, adulterating its simplicity with other duties and interests. Their souls were in danger. His message was not unlike the very same message he heralded to unbelievers at the beginning of His public ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.” (Mark 1:15) Like so many churches today, they were unknowingly teetering on unbelief, if not there already. Christ even threatens them with death! (v.5)
However, even a backsliding church in need of a stern divine rebuke was not beyond the loving “compliment sandwich” of Jesus. Despite their wavering and apostasy, they weren’t complete screw-ups. After all, they had “endured patiently” under persecution and “tested” false teaching against the Scriptures. After delivering his harsh criticism, Jesus also acknowledges their just hatred of Nicolatian worship, something that He too hates. His two slices of encouragement and affirmation speak loudly to us today in our mission to speak kindly to a world ignorant of truth.
While the “compliment sandwich” might be relegated to job performance evaluations at the workplace, the basic principle extends to Christian admonition as well: empathy and encouragement. In many churches today, hardened Christians express a basic attitude that the truth must be proclaimed to sinners and “they’ll just have to get over it.” Such a mindset is not only heartless…it’s also unbiblical. In his letter to the Ephesian church, Christ demonstrates that empathy and encouragement can go hand-in-hand with godly admonition and reproof. Sometimes the way we lovingly correct someone is the best evidence that we actually love them in the first place. We love sinners by delivering the truth, not by forsaking it. But unless that truth is wrapped in love, it’s a pretty plain sandwich.